As researchers like Daniels continue to study whether firefighters have a higher risk of cancer due to exposure to toxins while on the job, officials at departments across the Chicago suburbs are becoming increasingly vigilant about combating what many describe as the most daunting challenge now facing firefighters.
The death of Waukegan firefighter Kevin Oldham, 33, from pancreatic cancer in 2011, followed by the diagnoses of two members of the department who currently are battling cancer, has made preventing cancer a top priority for the department, Waukegan fire Chief George Bridges Jr. said.
“Firefighters these days are not just fighting fires. They are dealing with structures that are categorized as (hazardous materials) incidents because of all of the chemical toxins in the buildings,” Bridges said. “As a fire chief, firefighters are my superheroes, and the byproducts of today’s fires are their kryptonite.”
He added: “It really touched home after Kevin’s death. … He was very young, and had a wife and kids.
“We are a family here, and when someone dies or is ill, and to think there’s something we can do to help prevent this, it hurts us even more,” Bridges said.
As fire chiefs like Bridges cope with the loss of a firefighter and struggle to find ways to help those who are still battling cancer, government officials in the area face formidable challenges posed by cancer cases.
In Buffalo Grove, village officials said the decision to file a lawsuit contesting the firefighter pension board’s ruling to grant Kevin Hauber’s family a full pension was made after much deliberation.
Paying the Hauber family the full pension benefit would cost taxpayers an additional $1.7 million over the course of the pension, officials have said.
In addition, officials said the pension board’s decision represented a “precedent-setting case,” which, if not challenged, would have a long-term, negative financial effect on municipalities.
“It’s very difficult to balance the human interests of Kevin’s widow and her children with the financial and fiduciary responsibilities we have to our residents,” Buffalo Grove Village Manager Dane Bragg said. “It is definitely challenging, and we have been sensitive of that from day one. But sometimes, you have to make a decision that is not the most popular position to be in.”
When a municipality designs a pension system, officials should ensure that the contractual agreements in cases of employee disability and death are stated clearly, and they also “need to honor them,” said Jeffrey Brown, dean of the Gies College of Business for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
While fatalities from catastrophic injuries suffered during a service call have none of the ambiguity inherent to cancer deaths, Brown said pension policy contracts should be airtight and eliminate any lingering questions for family members about their benefits.
“I’m sympathetic to these families because public pensions have become a hot-button political and financial issue,” Brown said. “But a pension policy should be writ large with a promise that the city is obligated to either pay the pension benefit or not.”
After the cancer death of Lincolnshire-Riverwoods Fire Protection District Lt. James Carney, 43, village officials did not fight the Fire Department pension board’s decision to grant his widow and their two young children a full pension benefit, said Steve Shetsky, a fellow firefighter and member of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4224.
Carney, who was raised on his family’s farm in Wadsworth, was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 after medical examinations determined the disease was the result of repeated exposure to carcinogens while he was out fighting fires, Shetsky said.
According to court records, Carney, who had sought medical attention after he was having trouble sleeping and was coughing at night, was diagnosed with pericarditis, which is the swelling of the tissue around the heart.
After a surgery was performed, doctors found a tumor between Carney’s heart and the membrane enclosing the heart. His firefighting career ended after diagnosis and treatment for pericardial mesothelioma, court records show.
While Carney was granted lineof-duty disability pension benefits and his death was ruled as dutybased, officials denied a request that his family be covered by a health insurance benefit under the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act, prompting a February 2016 lawsuit against the fire protection district.
A June decision by the Illinois Appellate Court upheld a ruling by the Circuit Court of Lake County that the Carney family is indeed entitled to the line-of-duty disability pension benefit.
“Every aspect of this entire process has been extremely difficult for everyone involved,” Shetsky said.
“This seems to have become the new norm … municipalities contesting line-of-duty benefits. They risked their lives for their communities in the short time they lived, and now, their loved ones face a battle.” University Park firefighter, 42, colon cancer
When a colonoscopy in February detected what turned out to be a golfball-sized, cancerous tumor on her large intestine, Keri Pacelli said she was flabbergasted.
“I was very surprised because I thought it was probably just my gallbladder,” Pacelli said. “I knew that cancer can be part of life, but I just didn’t think it would be when I was only 40.”
As a busy working mother with two young daughters, Pacelli said she didn’t have time to worry much about her occasional bouts of gastrointestinal flare-ups, and is grateful her doctor urged her to get a colonoscopy.
Following her diagnosis, Pacelli said she heard from four other young firefighters diagnosed with colon cancer within a 10-mile radius of University Park.
“We’re crazy if we think any of this cancer is not because of Maywood firefighter, 54, prostate cancer
In 2010, a doctor conducting a routine checkup detected Gene Washington’s protein levels were high. The longtime firefighter said he was devastated when a biopsy uncovered an aggressive form of prostate cancer.
“I had previous tests, and the other doctor never caught it,” said Washington, a married father and grandfather.
He has been dealing with a prostate cancer diagnosis for the past eight years.
“Years ago, it was ridiculous, but we thought it was wasting time to put on a mask. You’d wake up the next day and blow your nose, and black soot would come out.”
Washington said no one has determined whether his cancer stems from his profession.
“Maybe it’s a contributing factor, but we just don’t know how cancer manifests in your body,” he said.
As Washington awaits word from his doctors at the University all of the carcinogens … the smoke and burning plastics,” Pacelli said. “We’re breathing it all in, and where is it all going?”
After surgery and chemotherapy, Pacelli has now returned to her job as firefighter. She remains hopeful that a workers’ compensation attorney can help her get back some of her lost sick time and recoup the deductibles paid on medical bills, totaling more than $400,000. of Chicago on when he will start radiation therapy, he has decided to retire earlier than anticipated.
“Cancer has made me realize how short life is, and I still want to be able to someday enjoy taking my wife on a gondola ride in Venice, to tour the Eiffel Tower and to see the ruins in Rome,” Washington said, adding, “I don’t really discuss my cancer with a lot of people because I’m a private person. I’m not one to broadcast my problems, but I’m not ashamed of it, either.”
— Karen Ann Cullotta, Pioneer Press
University Park firefighter Keri Pacelli holds her helmet, which has photos of her daughters, Brianna, 15, and Jenna, 11, taped to it. She has returned to work.
Gene Washington was a firefighter in Maywood for 28 years but recently retired after learning he has prostate cancer.